Rob Shaw: Expect John Horgan to bring back a controversial bill from last summer, because it obviously means a lot to him, and also because he can.
An emotional Premier John Horgan used his own personal history to signal this week just how much he cares about passing a bill that would detain youth in hospital for treatment after an overdose – involuntarily, if need be.
During a mid-question period debate on Wednesday, Green MLA Adam Olsen urged Horgan not to listen to the family of a 12-year-old girl who suffered a fatal overdose in Horgan’s riding and is urging him to bring back the legislation. Olsen argued the idea is deeply flawed and will harm children more than it will help.
Horgan was having none of it, and in response gave a rare insight into why the legislation means so much to him.
“I was a 12-year-old drug user,” said the premier, in a statement that caused total silence to descend upon the legislature.
“I wasn’t reading statutes at the time. I don’t think that anyone who’s using drugs as a youth is concerned about the debates in this legislature. I don’t think the parents of children using drugs are particularly concerned about the debates in this legislature. They want all of us to get our act together and protect young people.”
Normally, the declaration of a sitting premier that he used drugs at the age of 12 might cause a few eyebrows to be raised.
But with Horgan, that kind of thing matches up with the story of his youth.
His father died when he was 18-months old, and his mother was left to raise him and three children, relying on the good will of neighbours and relatives.
He admits he was on a bad path in his early teens, hanging with the wrong people and failing math, science, and typing classes at Reynolds Secondary School in Victoria.
When I profiled him for the Vancouver Sun in 2014 he made a passing reference to marijuana use as a teen. I suppose in the early 1970s, that would have been pretty controversial, and a sign he was headed to becoming a washout. But today, it’s legal and widely used. I didn’t even include the specific reference in my final story, opting to shorthand it to “troubled” instead.
The more interesting part of the Horgan journey is that his high school basketball coach Jack Lusk found him floundering and, as he put it, “grabbed me by the scruff of the neck in Grade 10 and said you are going nowhere friend, you should try this instead.”
Horgan went down a better path, ending up playing varsity basketball at Trent University in Ontario, meeting his wife, pursuing a master’s degree in Australia, and working as a staffer in Parliament Hill in Ottawa before ending up back in B.C. as a staffer in the 1990s NDP government and finally an MLA in 2005.
But Horgan never forgot about that dark path that Lusk saved him from.
“Were it not for Jack Lusk, I could be dead, that would be no surprise,” Horgan told me in 2014.
When Horgan was sworn in as premier at Government House in 2017, he delivered an emotional speech thanking his family. And then he paused and searched out Lusk, who was in the audience, to thank him again too.
All this is important to remember when you consider Bill 22, the youth confinement bill the Horgan government introduced in 2020.
It’s clear now that Bill 22 is a kind of legacy bill for Horgan, a very personal attempt to take the troubled youth he barely avoided and turn it into legislation to help others.
He thinks he dodged a bullet as a teenager, with the path he was on. And he considers this bill just one of the ways he can ensure future teens avoid those same kind of mistakes. He’s paying it forward, on behalf of his old basketball coach Jack Lusk.
Most political observers, myself included, miscalculated how much this legislation personally meant to the premier.
When he cited it in September as one of the reasons for calling an early election in the middle of a pandemic, I and others scoffed at the idea it could truly be any type of factor.
But Horgan was incensed the Greens failed to support it when it was introduced in spring 2020 – and he needed their votes to pass it.
Olsen and Sonia Furstenau tried to point out that the B.C. Coroners Service, the Representative for Children and Youth, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association also opposed the legislation, which would have allowed doctors to hold a teenager who suffers an overdose in hospital for up to a week to develop a treatment plan and connect them with services.
The organizations were worried that such a law would scare teens from calling for help after an overdose, and further stigmatize First Nations youth already overrepresented in the child welfare system.
But as Horgan put it in the legislature this week, he’s not willing to wait to satisfy the concerns of all those groups when children are dying.
Every now and then, politicians draw lines in the sand on certain issues. They think, what’s the point of being in politics with all this power to make change if I can’t even do this one thing that means so much to me?
That’s where Horgan is at on Bill 22.
So here’s the bottom line: You can expect that legislation to return, with the full force of his majority government, later this year. And it will pass.
Woe unto the politician who tries to oppose it. Just ask the B.C. Greens.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
- Rob Shaw last wrote about the long-awaited unveiling of BC’s paid sick leave program – and took a stab at who’d be pleased (and not) down the road.
- In January, Rob looked at the issue of Bill 22, and near-universal condemnation – and wondered why John Horgan kept pushing. (Maybe today we have a clearer picture.)
- In March, the tenor of Question Period changed – especially when it came to pandemic response. Not everyone liked it, but Maclean Kay says asking awkward questions is necessary and explicitly the task set before opposition parties.